Family Vacation 2018: South Dakota

After our time in Omaha, we headed off to phase two of our summer travels – a few days in South Dakota! Since we don’t live near any of our extended families, most of our trips have been focused on traveling to see them, but especially as our kids get older, we want to make it a priority to show them more of the world, as well. We thought that with the ages of our kids, a trip out to South Dakota could be a good fit – some tourist attractions and opportunities to learn about nature and history but no long days in museums (which would be heavenly for Matt and me and much less so for our children!), and it was close enough that we wouldn’t have to drive forever to get there.

We left Omaha on Saturday morning and drove out to Wall, South Dakota, where we were joined by my mom and brother David – it was so nice to get some time with them on this trip, too! After a night in the hotel, we got up and visited Wall Drug the next morning. The kids actually did a great job of browsing and enjoying the experience without asking for 50,000 toys, and at the end we let them each choose one item that we’d buy for them.

Then that afternoon we drove through the Badlands, which were beautiful beyond what I can describe.

Had I realized we’d be able to get out of the car and climb around, I would have put everyone in shoes other than flip flops! It worked out alright, though 🙂

For the rest of our time in South Dakota, we’d arranged to stay at an AirBnB, which, we’ve discovered, is really what makes vacations work for our family. Spending days at a time in a standard hotel room is too overwhelming, but having more space and being able to prepare our own meals makes everything so much more manageable.

The morning of our first day on the western edge of South Dakota was spent at its most well-known attraction – Mount Rushmore! The big kids and I will be starting to learn about American history this year, and this was a great introduction, giving us an opportunity to talk about some of the presidents and a bit about the history of our country.

Knowing that we were heading into some red states and that we already stand out as a multiracial family with a child who sometimes uses a wheelchair, I intentionally did not pack any of the kids’ and my political t-shirts. I hoped we’d be at least a tiny bit inconspicuous. Miranda does not share that desire, and she and I had the following exchange while at Mount Rushmore:

Me: “Why do you think that they chose those four presidents to be on the mountain?”
Miranda: “Umm, because they thought they were good ones?”
Me: “Yeah, I think you’re right.”
Miranda, loudly: “Well, they won’t be putting Donald Trump up there, that’s for sure!”

We’re hoping the rest of the country comes to its senses and joins her in that opinion soon, as well.

We went from Mount Rushmore to Crazy Horse, which Matt had seen about 30 years ago but which the rest of us had never visited. It was fascinating to hear about its history and construction and the plans for its completion and to compare and contrast it to Mount Rushmore. There was a bus tour that allowed us to get close to the monument itself, and we were so glad we took advantage of that opportunity. The bus driver doubled as a tour guide and gave us more information and stories about Crazy Horse and its construction, and it was great to see a closer view of what was actually happening. Seeing a monument of this size being financed privately and in conjunction with efforts to support Native Americans was so impressive.

The next day we drove out to Wyoming to see Devil’s Tower, something to which Matt had been looking forward for quite some time! The kids really loved it, too. Miranda and Atticus are enthusiastic climbers, and Miranda talked a lot about coming back to climb it someday (we saw several climbers while we were there!), and she enjoyed any opportunity to climb on the boulders around the path we walked around the landmark…and I spent much of my day trying to keep Atticus safe while he attempted to follow her!

The following day I got up early drove out to Rapid City (everything is so spread out in South Dakota!) to meet a friend for breakfast, one of my co-moderators in the Facebook parenting group I help to moderate. It was a joy to sit down with someone who just gets it, who parents a child who has lived through trauma and who subscribes to the same parenting philosophy Matt and I use in interacting with our kids. It was so nice to meet her and spend a few hours together!

Our van’s brakes had been grinding, and it was in desperate need of an oil change, so after my breakfast date, I called around to local repair shops and sat around for a couple hours while our brake pads were replaced and oil changed – not super exciting but necessary. I didn’t get back to the rest of the family until around 2:00, which limited our afternoon options, but Matt and David researched some choices, and we ended up taking a scenic drive and getting out and walking around a bit. South Dakota is so beautiful!

The next day it was time to head out, so we packed ourselves up and started the long drive back home. We had one more attraction to see along the way – the Corn Palace!

And then after an overnight stop in Omaha on the way back, we made it home 🙂 Overall, it was a great family vacation time. There was some drama, but overall, the kids did really well with the driving time, and we really enjoyed our time as a family in South Dakota. It was so nice to have my mom and David there, too. The kids love hanging out with them, and though our night time adult hangouts were shorter than we would have liked, it was good to get even those little bits of time. We got to enjoy experiencing a new place together and talking about our country and its history. All in all, I’d say it was a successful vacation!

FAQ: Adoption Travel – Who? When?

Some of the most frequently asked questions we’ve received as we’ve worked our way through this adoption process relate to travel.

First, who will travel? At least one adoptive parent is required to travel. Last time Matt, Miranda, my mom, and I all traveled to adopt Madeleine CaiQun, and it was an amazing trip, and that was absolutely the best decision for our family at that time.

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This time around, the logistics surrounding traveling as a family would be somewhat more complex given our greater numbers, and it would be tremendously more expensive, and we’re not sure that even if we had that extra money on hand, it would be wise for all of us to travel. Given the young ages of our children, we think it best for one of us to stay home with them and the other to travel. It’s reasonably likely that we’d travel during times Matt is supposed to teach, and on top of that, I’ll be our daughter’s primary caregiver, so it makes most sense for us to encourage her to bond with me first. That means that I’ll travel, and Matt will stay home. And I’m going to take Madeleine CaiQun with me. The cost of bringing one additional child is not all that high, and we saw, on our last trip, how beneficial it was for Mei Mei’s adjustment to our family to have a sibling there with us, and we’re hopeful that having her there will aid in our baby#4’s transition to our family. And of course there is the added benefit that she’ll have the opportunity to return to and visit the country of her birth. Additionally, any two of our children at home always get along better than all three, so my having her with me will hopefully make life at home easier for Matt and my mom, who has graciously agreed to stay home from China and instead help Matt maintain life on the home front.

I would obviously love to have Matt with me on this adventure, but having already traveled to China for an adoption trip once before, doing so without him this time feels manageable. However, I don’t think it would be wise for me to go without at least one other adult. I asked my brother and sister-in-law if either or both of them would be willing to accompany me, and they’ve both graciously agreed to do so, and I’m very grateful for that. They’ll be supportive and helpful and, of course, are much beloved by Madeleine CaiQun 🙂

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We’ll be a party of 4 traveling to China and party of 5 returning home! I am absolutely dreading leaving Miranda and Atticus for that long – I’ve never been away from them for anything like that length of time, and I’m sure I’ll miss them like crazy. As we’ve talked and prayed about it, though, we’ve become more and more convinced that this is the best travel scenario possible.

While the group of people traveling is pretty well set, our timing is less certain. I’m a part of a number of Facebook groups centered around providing support for families adopting from China, and in one of them there is a pretty reliable chart tracking current timelines for each step throughout the process. If the averages hold, we are likely to get our Letter of Acceptance (LOA), also known as Letter Seeking Confirmation (LSC), sometime this week. Our dossier was out of translation (OOT) last Tuesday, September 13, and we were out of review as of yesterday, Monday, September 19. We have probably lost a little bit of time because the CCCWA (the central governing body in China overseeing everything related to adoptions) was closed September 15 – September 17 for the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, but they were back to work on Sunday, and usually the next steps (matching and issuing the LSC) are fairly quick, so hopefully we’ll make our way through that this week and get word that our LSC is on its way! This LOA/LSC step usually has the most variation and is thus the most crucial to our timing.

From there, the process gets a little confusing, but essentially we wait for several levels of US Immigration Approval. First we file our I800 (Petition to Classify Convention Adoptee as Immediate Relative) with USCIS. Once that application is approved, our paperwork is forwarded to the National Visa Center (NVC), where we will be assigned some new case numbers (our GUZ and invoice numbers) and receive information we’ll need to fill out the DS-260 form to apply for our child’s US immigrant visa. The NVC will also cable our file information to the US Consulate in Guangzhou. As soon as we are able to obtain a copy of the letter verifying that they have done so, our agency will drop off our Article V paperwork with the consulate in Guangzhou. The consulate reviews all of our paperwork and determines that everything is in order, and they issue our Article V to our agency, which is the last US immigration approval we need before traveling. While confusing in their layers, all of these steps are reasonably predictable in their timing, taking approximately 5-6 weeks in total.

At that point, everything is submitted back to the CCCWA, which has to issue us a Travel Approval (TA) – essentially an invitation to come pick up our child. TAs are coming pretty quickly these days – almost all that have been issued most recently have come in less than a week. There is no guarantee that that timing will hold, but we certainly hope it does. Once we have our TA, we request an appointment with the US Consulate in Guangzhou, and as soon as that is confirmed, we can get to work booking our travel! Usually you can leave about 2 weeks after TA is received.

All that to say, from LOA/LSC (which we hope to have this week) to travel can be approximately 9 weeks IF and only if everything goes perfectly. I’m giving us a 1 week grace period and hoping and praying like crazy to leave around December 8 or 9. Please, please, please pray with me that we’re able to do that! If we are able to travel then, we’d be gone for Matt’s finals week and the first week of winter break, which would be a pretty low key time for him at school and should make life here for him and my mom pretty smooth. Then we’d return around December 22 or 23 – just in time to have our family of 6 home for Christmas! It would be crazy – half of our family would be so incredibly jet-lagged for Christmas itself – but we’d be together, and that would be so amazing.

It’s entirely doable for us to travel then, but it’s by no means guaranteed. We really need to get our LOA/LSC this month, preferably this week, in order for it to be possible, and every other step needs to continue to go pretty quickly. If that doesn’t happen, we’ll need to make the decision about whether we travel at the end of December, which would mean getting our girl home faster and having more of Matt’s winter break left to enjoy all together but would also mean spending Christmas with half of us stateside and half in China; or travel in January, which means not traveling over Christmas but then bringing our little one home later and not having as much time over Matt’s Christmas break to settle into life together. I really don’t want to have to make that decision. I really, really want to travel and be home by Christmas. Would you pray with me that that can happen?